As summer starts to heat up, the noses of Arizona’s desert rats point northward, searching for the scent of water on the hot wind. Lucky for us, it’s a short drive to a land of trickling creeks and shady forests.

This three-day, approximately 300-mile road trip will take you to the lush Verde Valley, the otherworldly red rocks of Sedona, and the pine-covered mountains around Prescott.

red rock carved with petroglyphs

Ancient petroglyphs at V Bar V Heritage Site in the Verde Valley. Photo © Tim Hull.

Day 1

Take I-17 north from Phoenix to the V Bar V Heritage Site (100 miles, 2 hours, FR 618, 2.8 miles east of Sedona Exit, AZ 179, 9:30AM-3PM, Fri.-Mon. $5 Red Rock Pass). This former ranch has a rock outcropping with more than 1,000 petroglyphs made by ancient cultures. The short walk to the site follows a flat dirt path beneath tall cottonwoods along Wet Beaver Creek. There’s usually a docent around to explain and interpret these fascinating and mysterious etchings.

Next, drive into Sedona along the Red Rock Scenic Byway (17.5 miles, AZ-179), one of the most exotically beautiful stretches of road in America. There are several pull-offs for pictures and hikes around Sedona’s towering red rock-gods. Stop for lunch in uptown Sedona. A lunch option with some Arizona history is The Cowboy Club (241 N. 89A, 928/282-4200, daily 11AM–9PM, $7–35), where ranchers, actors and artists have mingled since the 1940s.

After lunch, drive into Oak Creek Canyon along Highway 89A to Slide Rock State Park (7 miles from uptown, 6871 N. Highway 89A, 928/282-3034, 8AM–7PM daily, May 1st–Labor Day, $20 per vehicle with 1–4 adults Mon–Thur, $30 Fri–Sun and holidays). One of the original homesteads and orchards in Sedona, Slide Rock is now the state’s favorite swimming hole. A turn on the 80-foot-long natural rock slide has been a favorite summertime thrill for generations.

Dry off and take 89A to Jerome (27 miles). Once a mining metropolis with a reputation for wildness, this charming tourist town is purportedly haunted by a few its wickeder former residents. If you’d like to see a ghost, your best option might be the Jerome Grand Hotel (200 Hill St., 928/634-8200, $155–250), which is housed in the old hospital. The Asylum Restaurant (928/639-3197, 11AM–9PM daily, $15–30) offers sweeping views from the hotel’s top floor.

red rock of Courthouse Butte surrounded by grass

Courthouse Butte in Sedona. Photo © Tim Hull.

Day 2

Have breakfast at the Mile High Grill (309 Main St., 8AM–4PM Mon–Thur, 8AM–8PM Fri–Sat, $7–12) and spend the morning exploring, shopping and walking around in Jerome. To get a sense of the town’s colorful history check out the Mine Museum (200 Main St., 928/634-5477, 9AM–6PM. daily, $2).

Next up is the true driver’s portion of the road trip: 35 miles of twisty, curvy mountain two-lane over the mountain and through the forest to Prescott, an historic town nestled in the piney Bradshaw Mountains. The picturesque downtown is the place to be when you’re not hiking and biking the forested trails. The historic Hassayampa Inn (122 E. Gurley St., 928/778-9434, $84–250) downtown has a retro-elegance with up-to-date comforts, and is just a short walk from the Whiskey Row, the center of Prescott’s nightlife.

Day 3

Start out with breakfast at the Raven Cafe (142 N. Cortez, 928/717-0009, 7:30AM–11PM, Mon–Wed, 7:30AM–12AM Thurs–Sat, 8AM–3PM Sun, $6–15) downtown, and then head for the trails in Prescott National Forest. Or spend the day hanging out and shopping downtown around the grassy courthouse square. In the afternoon head back to Phoenix on AZ 69 and I-17 (100 miles, 2 hours).

Want to hit the road and explore more of the Southwest? Check out Moon Southwest Road Trip.